British Columbia

'Largest' recorded chum salmon run: 2 million fish overload nets, burden boats

Record numbers of chum salmon — two million fish — returned to B.C's West Coast this year, bringing good news for fishermen fatigued by word of record lows of Fraser River sockeye.

'I knew guys that were having nets starting to sink there were so many extra fish'

Chum salmon in two stages of their life. The 'silverbright' would be caught out at sea. The striped 'dog salmon' would be closer to spawning grounds. (Shaun Strobel/Skipper Otto's)

Record numbers of chum salmon — two million fish — returned to B.C's West Coast this year, bringing good news for fishermen fatigued by word of record lows of Fraser River sockeye.

"We've had significant abundances ... it's all good news," said Jennifer Nener, Fisheries and Oceans Canada's regional salmon director, earlier this week.

That news got even better with the Johnstone Strait haul hitting 1.3 million fish.

"Fraser River chum salmon return is estimated to be two million, the largest return on record," said Lara Sloan of Fisheries and Oceans Canada in an email to CBC Friday.

"Catches in Johnstone Strait were some of the strongest on record. There have also been very strong returns of chum to the Nanaimo River."

Sloan said the spawning target was met early, with a total catch estimated at 150,000.

Chum catches have been strong on the east coast of Vancouver Island also, but she said not all the data is in yet.

The fishing is good

Gillnetter Shaun Strobel fishes the west coast of Vancouver Island, and down the Johnstone Strait to Nanaimo.

The fall net, or chum catch, is usually good, he said. But nothing like this.

Chum salmon caught out to sea are firmer and redder fleshed than the paler fleshed fish caught upstream or near fresh water. (Shaun Strobel)

At first there was supposed to be a lottery for who got to fish commercially, he said, but returns were so strong fishing was opened up to anybody.

"Everybody was catching fish from the top of the straights up towards Alert Bay all the way down to Campbell River. We were catching fish everywhere," said Strobel, who described loads of fish weighing down boats and threatening to break or sink nets.

"We were all doing well."

A blog post for Skipper Otto's community-supported fishery claims salmon are thriving.

"Although Fraser River sockeye numbers have hit a record low, other salmon species returning to the Fraser are doing extremely well," wrote the company's general manager, Chris Kantowicz. 

"Commercial, Aboriginal, and recreational fisheries targeting these runs in the Johnstone Strait and near the Fraser River are fishing the strongest returns in many years."

Kantowicz said the largest catch ever recorded in a Johnstone Strait chum salmon fishery took place Oct. 17 when one fleet pulled in 800,000 fish in a day. 

Commercial fishers also report that sockeye runs were strong on Vancouver Island north of Port Hardy, near Bamfield, Ucluelet, Port Renfrew and Tofino.

Federal fisheries officials are still tabulating and could not verify this yet.

Chum salmon seem to be having a leaping success this year with 2M counted off B.C's coast, despite being the poorest jumpers of all salmon varieties. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr)

"I knew guys that were having nets starting to sink there were so many extra fish in there and calling for extra crew," said Strobel.

"That fishery has now gone 'terminal' ... the river is full of fish. At this point there is no room for further fish to spawn anyway."

So it's open season on chum, a salmon old-timers used to throw back.

Dog salmon, silverbright or keta — it's all chum

Chum — also known as dog salmon — are not the stars of the salmon world.

They are recommended for barbecuing or smoking, with flesh that can range from bright red to pale, depending where caught.

If caught upstream they are striped, but, out to sea, chum are often called silverbrights.

It's thumbs up for chum salmon fishing right now off B.C.'s west coast. (Shaun Strobel/Skipper Otto's)

"Chum are a really nice fish out in the ocean. Away from the rivers they are beautiful. They look like a big sockeye. They're nice and shiny," Strobel said.

"However, when they get near fresh water they turn very quickly."

Recently, chum have been rebranded in grocery stores as Keta salmon, using part of their scientific Latin name to get away from the negative connotations.

Chum salmon fishing is considered 'terminal' right now, meaning there is no more room in the river for salmon to spawn, said Fisherman Shaun Strobel. (Shaun Strobel/Skipper Otto's)

Fishermen say they're delicious, and their meat higher quality the farther away from spawning grounds when they are caught.

Chum are caught from Oregon to Alaska, and as far away as Japan and Korea.

They are the poorest jumpers in the salmon kingdom, so spawn downstream, unlike other species which can leap waterfalls and go upstream.

This often leads the species to be labelled lazy, despite also being known for having the longest migration in the world from the Beaufort Sea up the Liard River in B.C.

Shaun Strobel said nets were breaking and boats overloaded with chum on record-breaking day in Johnstone Strait. (Skipper Otto's/Shaun Strobel)
Chum salmon, labelled lazy by some, have one of the longest migrations in the world up the Liard River in B.C. (Chum Salmon in the Mackenzie-Liard River/University of Northern B.C.)